This guest post contains the opinion of the writer and does not represent the official views of Bus Riders of Saskatoon.
Recently the Saskatoon Transit Fleet Renewal Strategy was presented to the Standing Policy Committee on Transportation. In it, Saskatoon Transits recommends that the City set a target for an average fleet age more in line with industry standards, by using $4.95 million in gas tax funds to purchase 10 new buses.
This is a profound step in the right direction for Saskatoon Transit. First, they are setting service standards, which is something done in other departments. Also, management is beginning to tell Council what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.
Setting a target for average fleet age effectively means developing and implementing a regular program of replacing buses when they reach the end of their useful and cost-effective lifespan. The report clearly states that Saskatoon Transit does have a fleet management system that tracks the maintenance hours, parts cost, and fuel consumption. This information combined with the other lifetime costs (e.g. purchase, registration, insurance) of an individual bus should allow Transit to project when that bus will hit the point of “no longer cost effective to continue operating,” or replacement threshold. Knowing that threshold would allow for a new bus to be ordered from the manufacturer with sufficient lead time so that the new replacement bus will be delivered about when the old bus hits the threshold.
Most importantly, it means replacing with new buses and not used buses decommissioned by other transit systems. For too many years the Saskatoon Transit strategy has been to purchase used buses and refurbish them, on the mistaken presumption that this strategy saves money.
I analysed this strategy, specifically with respect to the 2012 purchase of used articulating buses formerly in service with OC Transpo. Though not a fleet-wide analysis, it did indicate a high likelihood that this strategy was likely to cost as much or more than simply purchasing new buses, or at best, save very little. Additionally, this was based solely on raw costs, without including a value on things such as rider comfort, driver comfort (fewer repetitive strain worker’s compensation claims), and other intangibles.
The analysis in Saskatoon Transit Fleet Renewal Strategy shows that on a fleet-wide basis, purchasing used buses does in fact cost more over the long term. While their analysis indicates that the life-cycle cost of new buses is greater than the “buy used” strategy, something I’m not sure I agree with and definitely merits further analysis, the “buy used” strategy requires Transit to maintain a much larger fleet than necessary.
According to the report, Saskatoon Transit requires 100 buses to provide the current service. The large number of old buses and the “buy used” replacement strategy means that they must maintain a large inventory of spare buses. In fact, it requires nearly twice as many. Industry standards suggest that they need to have a spare ratio of 25-30%. Currently they have 58 spares, for a spare ratio of 58%. The proposed Fleet Renewal Strategy, if carried out, would bring that ratio down to 33%, which is still higher than industry standards.
Reducing the overall fleet size has other benefits, some that mentioned in the report and some that are not. A smaller fleet would help close the mechanic-to-bus ratio gap, and extend the useful life of the new transit bus storage facility.
While the strategy presented appears to be a good one, there are a few caveats. This strategy is only for the replacement of existing buses, and therefore it does not account for additional buses to increase service levels, service new neighbourhoods, or serve a growing population. The proposal that will go to Council detailed in the report is for an initial purchase of 10 new buses, funded by gas tax revenue. This is only a one time purchase, if approved. For this strategy to be fully implemented, Saskatoon Transit will require regular and predictable funding starting with the 2016 budget and continuing on into every future budget.
While the Standing Policy Committee on Transportation passed the recommendations unanimously, will Council spend gas tax revenue on something other than automobiles? Will they have the will to implement this strategy beginning with the next budget, as they approach a municipal election in 2016? Traditionally Council likes to pass a “keeping taxes low” budget to campaign on, since that tends to appeal to voters. But will voters make it known that continuing to under-fund municipal services with year after year of band-aids cannot go on?
I’m reminded of the old adages “penny-wise, pound-foolish” and “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”. With the City beginning public input sessions for Budget 2016 it’s time to get squeaky.
On June 22, 2015, Saskatoon City Council passed (6 for, 4 against) the recommendations in the Fleet Renewal Strategy, authorizing the purchase of 10 new buses funded by gas tax revenue. A motion to defer a decision until additional information could be presented to the Executive Committee in July narrowly failed by the same margin.